Dora Ratjen was a German athlete who participated in Olympics and other championships in the women’s category until it was proved later that she was a man. Though, not really done for any illegal gain, his participation sparked suspicion among some of the fellow athletes, especially the British Olympic silver medalist Dorothy Tyler-Odam. Here is the story of Dora Ratjen, later renamed Heinrich Ratjen.
Born on November 22, 1918, Dora Ratjen was dressed and brought up as a girl because of a deformation of his genitalia that confused the midwife, who at first said it was a boy and after five minutes declared it to be a girl.
Ratjen was born in Erichshof, near Bremen, Germany, into a family of “simple folk”. He was born with a “coarse scarred stripe from the tip of his penis to the rear” that misled the midwife into thinking it was a girl. Nine months after his birth, Ratjen fell down and was taken to a doctor who examined his genitalia and told his parents to let it be since nothing could be done about it. Then, they named her Dora and brought him up as a girl.
Ratjen was an athlete, and participated in many championships between 1936 and 1939, including Olympics, in women’s category. He won a gold medal at the European Athletics Championships in 1938 with a world record jump of 1.67 meters.
Ratjen started becoming very successful at sports during his teens, especially high jump, and participated in the 1936 Summer Olympics at Berlin, but finished fourth. In 1938, he set a new world record by clearing 1.67 m (5 feet 5.75 inches) during the European Athletics Championships. In 1939, he broke the world record in high jump. However, he was already under suspicion by many people and that world record was given to Dorothy Tyler-Odam in 1957 when she told the IAAF that he was a man working as a waiter, which they verified.
By the age of 10 or 11, Ratjen began to realize that he was in fact a male and not female as his parents believed. But he never could ask his parents why they dressed him as a girl, probably because sexuality was too embarrassing a topic to discuss.
As Ratjen grew up so did the awareness of his body. He also faced several problems when he was with his teammates at sports events. During the 1936 Olympics, one of his teammates, Gretel Bergmann, said that the team just thought Ratjen was shy, strange, and odd for a girl of 17 who never showed herself naked in the communal shower. She also said that they never noticed or suspected anything different about her sexuality.
On September 21, 1938, while travelling on an express train from Vienna to Cologne, Ratjen was arrested for dressing up like a woman following a report by the train’s conductor to a police.
During his travel, the conductor of the train told the police at the station of Madgeburg that there was “a man dressed like a woman” on the train. The police then ordered Ratjen out of the train for questioning and to check his documentation. However, after some hesitation, Ratjen told his story to the police. A physician was then summoned who checked Ratjen’s intersex genitalia and stated that sexual intercourse might not be possible for him. Ratjen was arrested and charged with suspicion of fraud. He was sent to Hohenlychen sports sanatorium for more tests, which gave the same results.
On March 10, 1939, criminal proceedings against Ratjen ended when the public prosecutor stated that it was not fraud since there was no intention for financial reward.
The charges of fraud on him were dropped and Ratjen promised to stop participating in sports. Her European Championship record was cancelled and her gold medal was returned. Ratjen’s father, though at first insisted on his son being treated as a female, wrote to police chief of Bremen to modify the registry office entries of Ratjen’s sex and name to male and Heinrich respectively. According to Der Spiegel, a German weekly, he was issued new ID and work papers, and taken to Hanover by the Reich Labor Service as a working man. He later took over the running of his parents’ bar, refused to give any more interviews and died in 2008 at the age of 90.